Russell M Nelson, in his Sunday morning general conference address had some pretty dangerous remarks that hurt me and many of my friends, and even more via their parents.

No Empty Chairs

One day we had a Family Home Evening. I was probably in my mid teens. The lesson seemed like any other basic, throwaway lesson. It seemed to me like my mom had heard a really good story, or had a really good lesson in Relief Society, and wanted to share it with us.

My mom often shared with us her testimony, and raised us all to be True Believing Members of the church. Were it not for the great effort she put in, I easily could have left the church ten years earlier. She has always had a strong faith, and was really good at teaching and demonstrating it to us.

I don’t remember many of the details of the lesson, but I do remember her saying “No empty chairs” She said that when we get to heaven and we’re all together we’ll be sad if someone didn’t make it. So let’s all make it so no one is sad. There were lessons that she repeated in the following days and weeks, and there were lessons that stood out, but I don’t remember one having a greater impact than “No empty chairs.” She repeated those three words to me at least a couple times, but I repeated it to myself countless more. In my ten years of struggle, one thing that kept me in line with the church was not wanting to disappoint my mother. She is a Saint, and deserves more thanks and praise than she gets, and unfortunately more than I give her as a son, but the last thing I want for her is to be sad when she thinks about me.

I have been hashtag blessed with a mother that loves me despite my departure from her faith she took great effort to raise me in. For the longest time, I was scared of telling her because I was afraid she wouldn’t accept me any more. I thought if I asked her if she would rather me be happy or in the church I don’t know how she would answer, and that terrified me. I didn’t want to lose my family as so many of my exmormon friends have. Luckily, my mom told me she would rather me be happy. She’s such a great person, and she’s taught me more in four words, than anyone since my faith transition. So in her honor, and her words, I’m going to “Look for the Good” in Russell Nelson’s talk before I have some words with him about the rest of it.

A Child’s Deathbed

Nelson shared with us a tender, sacred moment between him and his dying daughter. I wish such a tender moment between all parents of dying children. Even the ones that haven’t “married in the temple and faithfully honored [their] covenants.” I hope that the love he has for his child would be the same if they hadn’t raised seven children to be devout disciples of Jesus Christ, as long as they had tried to raise their children to be good, moral people. I also hope no parents of dying children refuse such a tender moment for lack of valiant church standing, for surely they will regret wasting their last moments. Can’t we agree that the things that matter most aren’t ceremonies, obedience, and fidelity, but love, learning, empathy, and service?

If I were to get cancer and have a final moment with my mother, I hope she doesn’t have any sadness for my decisions in life just because I no longer subscribe to her church. I believe my mother would be proud, loving, and happy in my final moments. And for that I’m grateful. But for that secret doubt in the back of her head, and for the parents that would voice it, Russell Nelson, you are not helping. You’ve told them that they won’t get mansions, but meager roofs that Jesus never spoke of. You told them that families won’t be reunited, that I won’t progress (be damned), that I haven’t humbled myself to your version of God. You doubted the reality of my deep spiritual search for Truth. You even questioned the efficacy of proxy ordinances after I’m gone. You’re the one building walls between my family and me.

A prophet’s plea

The truth is I have poured out my heart to god; I have taken time to study his words, actions, and creations. I really studied, and not just from limited approved sources. I’ve had “experience with god.” What should I do if god has given me a different answer? Why is god telling so many different people so many different things?

I don’t doubt that covenant-keeping people are happy. I have a problem with claiming everyone else’s happiness isn’t a “fullness of joy.” The church does not have a monopoly on happiness and they do not get to tell me where my happiness comes from. No one can determine the depth of anyone else’s happiness without their permission, and they will not have mine.

We can learn to respect each other’s differing beliefs, but let’s agree that what happens when we die is a belief worth respecting, not a fact worth convincing. I think I understand your beliefs, and I respect them. Would you like to hear about mine?

If we’re going to start with mutual respect, calling mine “second best” is not a respectful start. Do you believe that heaven will only be populated by people like you?

The Gates of Heaven

Brother Nelson gives a lot of predictions about what is going to happen when we die, about entering worlds with faces and questions, but the truth of the matter is he hasn’t died yet. Maybe he’s seen it, but no one who has actually gone there has ever come back. If they did, they didn’t really go. Maybe someone has told someone else, but you still heard it from someone mortal who hasn’t died yet.

I know what happens after we die. I’ve seen it. What makes his version more believable? The legal line-of-succession document that identified him? Tradition (is that the best that you’ve got)? That what he speaks is exactly what you believe? That his organization has told you what to believe over and over and over and you’ve accepted? Or that you had or have a really good feeling about it? What if it doesn’t make sense? What if not everyone gets the same really good feeling? What if it hurts people?

You want to live inside a wall that would bar me from getting in? And you think you’re clean? That hurts me: that you think your version of what happens after we die is so much superior to mine that I have to accept it or you’ll be sad, and it’ll all be my fault. You have built this world where we’re going to be divided. You had a lot of people helping you build it, but you’re the one that thinks your side of the wall is going to be better than mine. Because somebody told you. And you know it’s wrong because you admitted you’re going to be sad about it. And someone told you that it’s my fault you’re going to be sad. That hurts me significantly. You want robots programmed with the secret Church Handbook of Instructions guarding the gates of your house?

If there are “many mansions” in heaven I don’t believe in barring anyone, especially my family, from my house. Jesus never mentioned a “meager roof” but even if that’s what I get, I will not presume someone’s cleanliness, nor use that as an excuse to ban anyone from my home. And I don’t want to live under the confines of someone who would not allow me to share my glowing fire, my loaf of bread, my roof’s safe shelter overhead that others too may be comforted.

If there is an empty chair it’s because I’m not allowed in the room. Either you don’t want me or you’d rather live behind gates that would forbid me from entering.

No matter what happens, I want all my loved ones to be welcome under my roof, at my table, and by my fire. And no matter what Russell M Nelson tells you, if I can’t get to that empty chair it’s not my fault. If you’re sad I’m not there, is it really heaven?

Merlin J.A. Salisbury

Merlin is either a regular guy or a time-traveling wizard. He has a masters degree in theatre sound from UMKC, and is an IATSE audio engineer in Philadelphia. He spends his time wondering how to create a modern community, and dreaming of buying an old church and turning it into a movie theater.

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